Charles Evans Whittaker (1901-1973) was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1957 to 1962. He was the first Supreme Court Justice ever to have been born in Kansas. Although Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life, Whittaker retired after only five years of serving on the court due to exhaustion. He was part of at least one notable Supreme Court case, namely Gomillion v. Lightfoot.
Whittaker was born on the 22nd of February, 1901 in Troy, Kansas, located in Doniphan County in the northeastern corner of Kansas near the border with Missouri. His parents raised him on the family farm until his mother (born Ida Eve Miller) passed away on his 16th birthday, February 22, 1917. The grief-stricken Whittaker left his high school studies and threw himself into working on the farm and trapping wild animals full time. He later wrote, “I felt like I couldn’t go on, and I quit high school.”
This wasn’t the end of his academic career, however. Whittaker regularly read the local newspaper, and articles about crime, law enforcement, and the law interested him especially.
After undergoing some further tutoring at the Manual High School in Kansas City, Missouri, he was accepted into the University of Kansas City’s night school law program in 1920. He earned money from selling the furs of the animals he trapped, and this helped him fund his higher education.
Whittaker supplemented his law education by doing office work for the law firm of Watson, Gage, and Ess. He would work a 9-hour shift in the law office, take a bus, then attend classes from 4:30 in the afternoon until 9:30 in the evening. One of Whittaker’s classmates was Harry S. Truman, who would later become president of the United States.
Whittaker’s persistence paid off. He was able to pass the Missouri Bar Exam a year before he received his law degree. Once he’d passed the bar Watson, Gage, and Ess hired him on. Whittaker was made a partner two years later in 1925.
A few years later, in 1928, Whittaker married the former Winifred R. Pugh. The couple would go on to have three children; all boys. Their son Charles became a neurosurgeon, Kent an attorney like his father, and Gary a stockbroker.
Whittaker’s law career was largely uneventful. He often found himself representing corporate interests, such as those of the Montgomery Ward company and the Union Pacific Railroad. Whittaker was not particularly involved in political affairs.
In 1953, Whittaker was tapped to serve as the president of the Missouri Bar Association. Although he himself wasn’t involved in politics, his association with the Missouri bar made him well-known to local politicians. Whittaker was widely considered a non-partisan attorney.
In 1954, one of the seats on the Missouri Western District of the United States District Court became vacant. District court judges are appointed by the president of the United States. A number of local political and bar association figures suggested that Whittaker should be considered for the judgeship. Whittaker had the support of Roy Roberts, the conservative publisher of the Kansas City Star newspaper.
More importantly, Whittaker had the support of Arthur Eisenhower, a close personal friend. Arthur Eisenhower’s brother, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been elected president of the United States in 1952. President Eisenhower appointed Whittaker to the District Court judgeship.
Whittaker served in the position for two years before President Eisenhower appointed him to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate confirmed Whittaker’s nomination on the 22nd of July, 1956.
Supreme Court Career
When Justice Stanley Reed retired from the Supreme Court in 1957, President Eisenhower had to nominate a replacement. U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell suggested Whittaker as that replacement. Whittaker was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Eisenhower on the 2nd of March, 1957. He was confirmed by the Senate on the 19th of March.
The U.S. Circuit Court, the U.S. District Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court are the three levels of the federal judiciary branch. Charles Evans Whittaker was the last Supreme Court Justice who had served at all three levels until the appointment of Justice Sandra Sotomayor in 2009.
Once he’d attained the highest judgeship in the nation, Whittaker found himself overworked and under mounting tension and stress. He wrote only eight majority opinions during his five years of serving on the Supreme Court. Whittaker did; however, serve as the tiebreaker by siding with the majority in a number of close court decisions.
Whittaker himself did not feel he was as qualified as some of the other Justices he served beside. His judicial philosophy was inconsistent, and he was courted by both the conservative and progressive judges on the bench due to his notoriety as a “swing vote.”
Gomillion v. Lightfoot
The case originated in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama. African-American citizens of Tuskegee outnumbered white citizens approximately four to one. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 ensured that the number of African-Americans who were registered to vote began to approach the number of whites who were registered to vote in the city. This worried some members of the white community, who pushed for the passage of a law that redrew the boundaries of the city of Tuskegee to exclude African-American neighborhoods. This affected the voting districts.
Charles G. Gomillion was a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black college located in the city of Tuskegee. Professor Gomillion and others sued the mayor of Tuskegee and other officials on the basis that the local redistricting law violated the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees due process and equal protection under the law.
In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s redistricting decision violated the 15th Amendment, which protects American citizens against being denied voting rights on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Whittaker agreed with the court’s ruling. In his opinion, he wrote that he believed the law should have been struck down not because it violated the 15th Amendment but because it violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Retirement and Later Life
In early 1962, the Supreme Court heard the case of Baker v. Carr, the case in which it was decided that the federal court had an interest in hearing cases involving voter redistricting issues. Whittaker exhausted himself deliberating over how he would vote in the case. In March of 1962 the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, asked Whittaker to recuse himself from the decision. Whittaker decided to retire from the court with his resignation going into effect on the 31st of March, 1962.
After leaving the Supreme Court, Whittaker was a vocal critic of the court under Chief Justice Warren. He criticized the civil rights movement of the 1960s as “lawless,” writing in a law enforcement magazine that protesters should use the courts rather than the city streets to address these complaints.
Charles Evans Whittaker died at the age of 72 in Kansas City, Missouri, on the 26th of November, 1973. His death was the result of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. Kansas City’s U.S. District Court building is named after him.